Monday, March 14, 2011

6 Fillers to Avoid in Dialogue

The oft-quoted recommendation to make your dialogue as realistic as possible is sometimes the worst advice imaginable. The next time you’re in a conversation—or, even better, eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation—draw back a bit and evaluate what you’re hearing. Those “ums,” “you knows,” and “so, likes…” that pepper our everyday speech may be realistic, but they don’t generally make for good dialogue on the page. Following are a list of unnecessary “fillers” to avoid in your fictional dialogue:


1. Tics and Time Buyers: “Like,” “you know, “um,” “uh,” “well,” “look,” “er,” “ah,” and their ilk rarely add anything to the conversation. They’re little plugs our brains insert into the flow of our speech to give us time to piece together the right words to finish our thoughts. Only use these words when they indicate something about the character—and, even then, use them with extreme caution.


2. Reiterations: Whenever “huh?,” “what?,” “I didn’t hear you,” “I don’t understand,” or “could you repeat that?” crop up in your dialogue and force a character to reiterate something he just said, it’s a sure indicator of one of two things: 1) Either the original line of dialogue was incomprehensible and needs to be rewritten or 2) the confused character’s question and the subsequent explanation are unnecessary and should be deleted.


3. Repetitions: Don’t let your characters get away with echoing each other: “I burnt the dinner.” “You burnt the dinner. How’d that happen?” “I don’t know how it happened. It just did.” Keep each line of dialogue fresh and punchy with new material: “I burnt the dinner.” “How’d that happen?” “It just did.”


4. Info Dumps: In real life, if we went around saying things like, “As you know, Bob, our sister got married last Tuesday and we both missed her wedding because we discussed it amongst ourselves and decided together that we wanted to spite her,” you’d get strange looks and lose friends. Unless there’s a good reason for including such information in dialogue, spare your characters and your readers and place the necessary info into the narrative instead.


5. Small Talk: Introductions, greetings, farewells, chitchat about the weather—nine times out of ten all that good stuff is completely unnecessary to the plot and adds little or nothing to character development. Ax it relentlessly.


6. Direct Address: Characters calling each other by name is one of the subtler forms of “filling,” but, ironically, it’s also one of the most unrealistic attempts to create authentic dialogue. In real life, we generally call someone by name only when trying to get his attention, when emphasizing a point, when in the throes of strong emotion, or to avoid confusion.


Dialogue is one of the most fun bits of fiction to write, in large part because the gloves are off and “the rules” rarely apply. In fact, none of these “rules” I’ve listed here will apply in every circumstance. Sometimes you’ll make the educated choice to use one or all of these fillers to advance your plot or illustrate something about a character. Just make certain you understand why and when to use them. Now, sit back and let ‘em talk!

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38 comments:

  1. I am terribly guilty of #2. I think it's because I actually have horrible hearing, so asking for clarification feels super natural to me in a conversation...but obviously it does not belong in character dialogue.

    I see #4 a lot while working in critique groups. That one I can spot pretty quick.

    These are great tips!

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  2. whew! glad to know i don't use any of those...or if i do, it's not much.

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  3. You've made an essential point. If dialogue in books was exactly like real dialogue, it would be insufferable. It makes sense to consider what the dialogue shows about the character before anything else. Great post.

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  4. I am the master of #6, I'm not sure why. Maybe because I give my characters names I love so I want to use them. Great post!

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  5. I can think of several occasions when I've used 1 or 2 deliberately. Number 1 can work very well for effect if you want to show a character being awkward. A protagonist meeting his love interest for the first time and leaving a bad impression can be a perfect time to produce a piece of speech filled with fillers: "Erm... You're kinda um cute and um I was like wondering if erm you'd um like to um go out with me. Um."

    I've occasionally used number 2 for humour. This is when some complicated series of events have happened and one character is summing it up for the other in a way that is deliberately bewildering. The reader knows what's going on but you can happily have your character going, "Huh?"

    But there's no excuse for number 4.

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  6. Well, thanks for the advice.

    The repetitions make people feel dumb!!! That part was awesome and must be noted down by all!!

    with warm regards
    http://arandomarticle.blogspot.com

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  7. I just finished a book where the characters used names excessively in dialog and it was mildly annoying. It didn't ruin the story, but it did niggle at the back of my mind while reading.

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  8. @Christine: I didn't realize how guilty *I* was of #2 until I was forced to trim a sizable number of words from a manuscript. In hunting for bits that could be safely deleted, repetitious dialogue was the first to go.

    @Michelle: You go!

    @Dixie-Ann: Occasionally, you'll see a book that mimics "real" dialogue, but it's usually just for laughs.

    @Danielle: That makes a lot of sense, actually. We spend so much time choosing the perfect name that, of course, we want to make sure we get all the work we can out of it.

    @Jessica: I believe all of these "no-nos" can be used on purpose to create profitable effects, but, even when we know what we're doing with them, it's important to err on the side caution.

    @AllMyPosts: And the last thing authors want to do is make their readers feel dumb!

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  9. @Pegg: I have to admit that overuse of direct address is one of my pet peeves. It drives me crazy.

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  10. I've seen a lot of "direct address" issues in works I've judged or edited. It always reminds me of the preacher who gave a sermon on praying and mentioned how many times we address God in our prayers.

    "Dear Lord . . . and Lord please . . . and Lord, bless . . . and Lord forgive . . . Amen."

    I've never forgotten that sermon, which is why "Well" is more a problem for me than direct address!

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  11. Hah! I've heard a few prayers like that myself. Direct address can become a crutch, just like the words mentioned in #1, when overused.

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  12. I've had such a hard time with the direct address thing. Because that's how I talk. I say people's names. It's a way of bringing emphasis to what I'm saying when paired with tone. Unfortunately, it doesn't read that way to anyone else. Still weeding out those names...

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  13. Fortunately, direct address is one of those techniques it's difficult to *under*use. When in doubt, strike it out.

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  14. Great advice there. I'm struggling with dialog, especially with #2, reiterations. It's hard to make discussion memorable.

    I try to chose my scenes also (if it can help) to identify when the characters will need talking and why would they need so, before writing the scenes. If not, I'm a sucker for filler.

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  15. This is where outlining comes in really handy for me. If I know what the central conflict is in each scene, I know what the characters will be discussing or arguing.

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  16. As for the direct address issue, A woman I know has a habit of addressing the person she is speaking to in every sentence, even when it is only she and the other person in the room. (Like Linda's prayer example) It drives me bats. Don't like when she does it in real life, don't like reading it in novels either.

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  17. Calling someone by name is an intimate gesture in any circumstance that doesn't involve trying to get that person's attention. Dale Carnegie, et al., train their people to call others by name as a way of accelerating familiarity. When overdone, it can be smothering, to say the least.

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  18. I can agree on #4 and #6 because, as you said, they lack realism, and on #5 because unimportant bits of dialogue should generally not be there in the first place, but on the first three I'd have to say that replicating the way people really speak is important, or everything sounds like epic fantasy novel speech. Which is great for epic fantasy novels, but less great for everything else.

    Of course, that's only my way, as this is your way.

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  19. Ultimately, it depends on how *much* of 1-3 you put in your prose. The occasional addition can add realism, but if we insert them as often as we do in real speech, readers quickly grow weary.

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  20. Weirdly, my family and I do use each other's names in conversation, apparently more often than most people do - as a consequence, this is a problem for me in my fiction dialogue.

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  21. You only use your family's names? Interesting. I'm enjoying hearing everyone's experiences with real-life dialogue!

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  22. Good post, Katie. #4 cracked me up! Of course, that one was very blatant, it's the more subtle info dumps that usually catch people off guard.

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  23. Yeah, I don't think I'd want "Bob" and Co. for brothers. ;)

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  24. My husband was taught to use a person's name as often as possible in conversation - especially when he first met them. It's one of the tools they offered in order to help them learn names more quickly.

    (Just brainstorming why people may do this so you may not be as irritated the next time they do it in real life.)

    I think this is a great list of tips - thanks!

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  25. I wouldn't say that it "irritates" me, just that it makes me wonder about their motivations - especially when salespeople do it. ;)

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  26. Thanks for posting this! These are things we try to keep in mind when we are editing dialogue, and it's something that comes up again and again. It really slows things down when the dialogue is too close to some of the problems we encounter in communicating in real life.
    Thanks!

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  27. It's a balance (as is most of fiction) between offering enough realism in our dialogue and offering *too much.* We're all learning how best to achieve that balance.

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  28. Great list of tips. I think I'm mostly guilty of "info dumps" more than anything. Everytime I go back over manuscripts, I see so much to cut.

    Which means I usually (not always) have to write something extra to take it's place. :)

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  29. Writing is give and take, but info dumps are one of those things we can take away more often than not.

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  30. Dialog takes a lot of effort to get it right. Many novels still feature unrealistic dialog and especially the info dumping. If you're following the characters proper they should have the same information that the reader does. In an age where attention spans are dwindling we don't want to have a reader give a pass because of lengthy exposition info dumps.

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  31. Writing isn't so much about getting it *right* as it avoiding getting it *wrong.*

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  32. Great tips, K M. It's a real art to get the conversation realistic without being 'real' - I've found the best thing to do is read my writing aloud. Clunky dialogue shows up like a neon sign. :)

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  33. Reading aloud is a fabulous trick, especially for dialogue. Nothing helps us "hear" if our dialogue is natural and realistic better than actually speaking it.

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  34. I use number 3 and 4 a lot... I just repeat myself if I'm stuck with a thought. It's really frustrating for me too to hear myself repeat a sentence that is the same, almost half of the words are the same but a little different...

    But I can't agree with number 6! I think it is really good for a conversation to adress the person directly, like: 'hi Bob' 'Jane, how are you' etc. And it's only bad if it's used in every sentence

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  35. Overuse of direct address is one of my pet peeves. It's one of the few tics that consistently yanks me out of someone's story.

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  36. Italians authors often are guilty for 1, 2, 3, 5

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  37. These are superb tips thank you! It took me years to really get a good hold on dialogue and I'm still learning. It is important I think, to listen to other people talk around you and eavesdrop, not for the sake of pilfering information but for the sake of understanding the rhythm of how people speak. But yes, all those filler words haha. I think giving each character a unique dialogue is the most difficult task. it's hard to differentiate. That's where listening to various types of people talking comes in. In #2, what I have done, is only use that "what?" deep in POV if a character is daydreaming or something and doesn't hear the previous question/statement. There's so much to be said about dialogue! there's historical/time period differences as well to consider.

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  38. I read a great historical fiction book, and would have given it 5 stars,if not for ONE particular character who literally every piece of dialogue she spoke was info dumping on the reader stuff that we knew already or could have figured out in another way. She was a rather important character too. Too bad :(

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